Chapter 13: The Orphanage

The houseboat is being pedaled up along a broad flooded ravine, in the midst of farming country, fields cleared of woods but not all fields planted so they have become overgrown in weeds. Trees can be seen lining the fields in places, or in ravines not yet flooded. One large field that has been planted is in Amaranth, a tall, leafy grain plant with plumes containing small seeds. Amaranth is known to be entirely edible, and is one of the rare plants that can equate to meat as it has lysine, a protein that meat contains. Another field nearby is planted in Corn, which when combined with Amaranth equal meat in protein nutrition.

The houseboat stops, Finegan taking a break to view these planted fields, a rarity during his travels. While he watches, some small children emerge from among the tall Amaranth plants. They range in age from 2-3 years, toddlers, to pre-adolescents. Most are not dressed in clothing appropriate for their age. Most of the older children have adult shirts or t-shirt, which fall almost to their knees and are tied around the waist. All are barefoot. Only the younger children have clothing that fits, and this so well worn it is clear they are hand-me-downs. The children are solemn, staring at the houseboat, and not leaving the safety of their Amaranth forest.

Finegan leaves his bike seat and comes to the front, standing side-by-side with Joey as they too solemnly view the scene before them. The houseboat is close to shore, next to where an idle field slopes down into the water. Finegan says,

I'm not sure they're used to company.

Finegan decides to moor the boat and check out the situation, as there does not appear to be an adult in charge. As he slings the grappling hooks into the ground and slides his gangplank forward, the children slip back into their Amaranth forest silently, disappearing.

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Finegan and Joey are walking along the edge of the Amaranth field where it abuts an old farmstead. The house has collapsed, and weeds and brush have grown up along its sides. The barn was knocked sideways by earthquakes but the roof is intact and has been propped up by lumber so it is, in essence, a lean-to. The hay in what was formerly the upper floor of the barn, the hayloft, is now the floor of the collapsed structure, and is covered in various blankets. This is where the children have been sleeping - out of the rain, but not out of the chill. As Finegan and Joey approach, some small children are seen dashing into the collapsed barn and crawling under their blankets, or dashing into the woods. They are indeed shy, and not used to visitors. Joey glances at Finegan and says,

I'm not the only one . . missing parents.

A wood burning stove is in the yard, under a tree where a tarp has been tied to the lower branches to act as a roof. A broken picnic table is nearby, supported by pieces of firewood where a leg is broken. Some dishes are piled on the table, washed from the last meal. The sound of young children's voices can be heard in the distance, unintelligible. An older woman with a limp appears, surrounded by a dozen children of various ages. They cluster around her, all talking at once, and gesturing toward Finegan and Joey.

The orphan mistress has graying hair, barely pinned on top of her head in a bun. Her dress is tattered and hanging on her body as though at one time she were somewhat overweight. She looks immensely weary, and walks as though she might not make the next step. She stops to take her breath and looks up at the visitors. Seeing them non-threatening, she raises a hand weakly, as though saying a "hello", and then walks forward toward the dining area. She takes a seat on the picnic table, sighing as though relieved to be off her feet. Taking a deep breath to gain her strength, she lifts her face to smile at the visitors and waves them forward to join her. She directs her charges.

Stir that fire and put on a pot. We'll serve some tea.

Finegan introduces himself.

Morning mam. Finegan Fine here and my partner Joey. I'm a trader, moving up and down these parts. Got my houseboat out there at the end of your field. Pretty impressive plots you have there. You plant and harvest that all by yourself?

The orphan mistress smiles and winks at the absurdity of this idea.

Fortunately, I've got plenty of help.

She leans back, having caught her breath, and continues to direct her young charges.

Honey, use that other pot. It has a spout. That's it.

Finegan says,

These aren't all yours . .

The startles orphan mistress responds,

Oh Heaven's no. I'd surely be in the ground if that was the case! Picked them up in Montgomery when the troubles hit. I was down there visiting, checking on some friends of mine that can't move around so good no more. After I buried them . . heart attack and such . . I was heading back home and found these kids just lost. . . Been weeks, and no one came to collect them. . . Well, what could I do? . . We came home together. Been a blessing, these darlin's have been. A blessing.

Finegan's mouth drops open at this unexpected description of a dozen or more orphans, some obviously only toddlers when she collected them, being described by this exhausted woman as a "blessing". He catches himself as he realizes they are watching his reactions.

Oh, indeed. My Joey here's the same. Got separated from his parents and we joined up. He's a blessing, no doubt about it.

The older children are arranging the cups and spooning some sort of tea from a tin into each cup, then pouring hot water from a pot of water taken from the stove. They bring the first cup to Finegan. Finegan says,

Oh, no, give the first cup to, ah, your mistress here. . .

The orphan mistress smiles at his chivalry, and accept the cup, sipping from it with half closed eyes as though it were something magical, a source of rejuvenation. Finegan accepts the next cup.

I can't help but wonder at your fields. I been up and down this coast. Found some folks that planted pumpkin, but most do vegetable gardens in rows, and they work at that day and night. You've got fields . .

The orphan mistress looks up from her cup of tea, suddenly realizing what he's missing from the picture.

I been at this business for some years. Planted corn and amaranth, being vegetarian and all. Don't need meat if you got those. Made a mix for the local organic outlets. Amaranth greens are a good salad too. Made my living at that. No need to plow if you keep the weeds down regular. Just re-seed.

The orphan mistress waves in the direction of the wall of young children clustered behind her, each clutching a cup of tea.

These are the best little weed pickers I ever seen. You pull a weed up, the grubs and beetles fall out, and the chickens clean them up. You go down the rows and knock the bugs off the plants, and the chickens foller along and clean them up. What's left is our produce, bug free. . . and eggs. We got lots of eggs.

There are some chickens at the side of the old house, scratching and pecking at the dirt. One hen has a cluster of young chicks around her. Suddenly Joey is interested.

And chicken noodle soup, right?

The orphan mistress looks aghast.

Oh, we don't eat anything that had a face! . . They get picked off often enough. They're prey to many a creature. . . But we eat the eggs.

Finegans asks,

Is there anything you need?

The orphan mistress responds.

I got no money . .

Finegans clarifies his offer.

I'm looking to help here. Anything you need?

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Finegan is approaching the barn lean-to, the sleeping quarters for the kids, pulling the rusty wagon behind him. Joey is behind the wagon, keeping a hand on the top of the pile of blankets, to keep it from tipping over. The woolen blanket given to him by the seamstress is on top of the pile.

The orphan mistress is tucking the kids into bed. They lay one beside the other, side-by-side to share body heat during the night, as there are few covers and not enough to go around. Small children are between older children, so the older children can raise their knees up, lying on their sides, if they wish. After they are stacked into place the orphan mistress throws one of her few blankets over them, tucking in the edges. The orphan mistress has suddenly noticed Finegan's approach.

Well lord sake. . .

The rest of the children lay down on the straw while the orphan mistress wafts the now ample blanket supply over them. There is one blanket left. Finegan, smiling, hands it to her.

And one for the mistress!

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Finegan and Joey are arriving back at their houseboat, at sundown, pulling the now empty creaking wagon behind them. Before they cross the gangplank, Joey throws his arms around Finegan's waist. Joey has a wet face, and takes one of his hands to wipe tears from his eyes. Finegan, wordless, grips Joey's shoulder with a one-handed hug, looking a little teary himself.